January 27, 2015

Two for Tuesday: the books are exploding!


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Mark: So we’re really doing this again?

Alex: Yes. Let’s talk about snow. It’s snowing, Mark! It’s gonna be a frosty one! Better get inside and stay warm and take some Instagrams. Those Instagrams will keep you warm. I am taking an Instagram right now. Kelvin!

Mark: Nothing says “winter” like poorly framed photos and filters that fail to evoke any past except for a wholly superficial one! But before I go out and start posing my mug of hot chocolate in front of a snowy backdrop, I’ll ask you this: how did we fail to publish a post about James Patterson’s exploding book? Is it because everyone else did? That’s actually a pretty good reason, but now that I’ve mentioned it, I must ask you, Alex Shephard, about your stance on exploding books.

Alex: My stance is pro-exploding books, but only if they literally explode, and this one literally explodes I think? This story quickly veered into John Oliver Video Sweepstakes territory, no? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love over-the-top headlines, but it’s a self-destructing book and they haven’t said EXACTLY how that will happen—though, considering the bomb squad is involved, it probably will explode. But if we had covered this story I would have given it a crazy headline like “If you buy this $300,000 James Patterson book, SEAL Team 6 will bust into your apartment, shoot your dog in the face, tie up your family, and blow that motherfucker up in 24 hours” or something like that. Damn it, that makes me wish we had written about this.

The liberal media missed the real story here, though. If you bought this book you would not only get a 2-night stay in a nice hotel and a dinner with the author himself (who seems cool! Hi James, if you’re reading this let’s hang out! LMK if you need a blizzard buddy, email me at alex at mhpbooks.com!), but also a pair of GOLDEN BINOCULARS. WHAT THE FUCK? I HAVE TO WRITE IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE WHY ARE YOU GETTING GOLDEN BINOCULARS? IS THE BOOK CALLED THE GOLDEN BINOCULARS?

Oh wait, one more thing. Speaking of John Oliver, the bomb squad definitely doesn’t have better shit to do, but still, why are they doing this? I’m confused, Mark. I love stunts so much, but I am confused. Did you buy the book?

Mark: I didn’t buy the book, as I’m saving up my $294,038 for a Porsche (only $294,036 to go!!!!), but yes, I agree, this stunt was pretty confusing. Did you watch the video, though? Every stunt needs a good video, and this one embraced the silliness of this entire enterprise. Why don’t we embed the video right here?

As you can see, the purpose of the golden binoculars is to “read from afar,” which, okay. That’s not really helpful, either.

Still, like you, I’m pro-stunt. The world doesn’t have enough stunts, and publishing, in particular, is an almost stuntless industry—probably because everyone in publishing is always tweeting about how many emails they have in their inbox, or having meetings with colleagues where they discuss how many emails they have in their inbox (hi Noah!), or telling their therapist about how many emails they have in their inbox. So when a stunt descends upon our email-obsessed corner of the world, everyone stops talking about their inboxes for a few seconds and takes notice.

I will say, though, that watching the exploding book news unfold over the last week, I was struck again by how little news there is in our industry. Not just stunts, but big, substantive events. Transformative shifts with major implications are happening all the time, of course, but publishing isn’t ever going to have its own BuzzFeed vertical. Wait, does publishing already have its own BuzzFeed vertical? Well, if it does, it has to be 80% cat/Taylor Swift pictures, because we just don’t generate enough heat. Is this a challenge to ourselves? Do we need to stop talking about email and start creating more stupid stunts?

Alex: 1. The publishing industry needs to divest itself from Taylor Swift because its reliance on cheap memes makes me want to kill myself and 2. This video is amazing. OK, well at least now we know why we didn’t write about this: because I was too lazy to watch a video and because I kept getting distracted by the existence of golden binoculars (as always, ugh).

Sometimes the only news is deal news, which is no fun—nothing bores me more than deal news. I would SAY we should do more stunts, but do we really trust ourselves? This Patterson thing is a gem, but it’s definitely the exception—I fear we would be too twee, too predictable, too not-having-the-budget-to-blow-shit-up-and-give-people-golden-binoculars. Alas.

Well, sometimes the only news is deal news, which is no fun, and awards news, which is usually a lot less fun than it seems. But the NBCC nominees came out last week, and they were actually pretty great? Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was nominated in both Poetry and Criticism, which was inspired—it also put the attention on that book and goddamnit, that book deserves it. Too often, awards just shine the light where the light’s already been shining—on your Franzens and your Tartts and your Pattersonses.

The NBCC Awards have always been good for highlighting slightly more marginal choices—they still aim towards the center, it’s just a different, better center—and this year’s nominees seem to do that. Still, I wish they stunted it up a bit. What if they gave the winners a pair of…. GOLDEN BINOCULARS AND THEN 24 HOURS LATER THE BINOCULARS EXPLODED. Franzen would be fucked, and we would both be sad about that because we like him.

Mark: We do both like him, and I’m glad you brought this up, because the next time you tweet something snarky about Franzen and don’t append some variation on “I kid because I love” after said tweet, I will send you a link to this post. We have about ten months of very annoying Franzen-related tweets in our future, and you, Alex, shouldn’t make things worse.

But yes, the National Book Critics Circle Awards! They’re great! Could they have used more nominees published by independent presses? Absolutely. But your characterization (“a different, better center’) seems absolutely right to me. The list of NBCC winners and nominees from the last few years paints a very different–and, I’d argue, better–picture of books published in the US than the Pulitzer or National Book Awards lists. The nonfiction list includes Thomas Piketty, for god’s sake! That’s as canny a selection as it is a correct one. And the list is full of stuff like that. Not to mention Alexandra Schwartz’s very well-deserved Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Did she win the award because of her great article about Melville House? Almost certainly not, but . . . maybe?

Oh, we need to talk about SkyMall. Taylor wrote about SkyMall yesterday, but let’s be honest, the world needs many more SkyMall thinkpieces. Or, as Michael Schaub would call them, SkyMall thinkpiece-flavored potato chips.

Alex: I’m devastated. Where am I going to buy suits of armor now? Where am I going to buy a sumo wrestler coffee table? Where am I going to buy a toilet seat that puts itself down on its own (with a new sensor, to prevent that terrible, terrible thing from ever happening again)?

I don’t know. These are things I know, so if anyone knows of a boutique in Brooklyn that sells anyone please email me at alex at mhpbooks dot com.

SkyMall has been weirdly important to me for most of my life. I’m a very anxious flyer and I’ve basically learned to manage that anxiety by doing three things: sitting on the aisle, reading SkyMall very carefully and imagining what I would do with all that cool ass stuff, and reading the dumbest imaginable business books. (I’m looking at you, Me, Inc. by Gene Simmons, you beautiful, sexy, super misogynistic and completely useless piece of trash.) These things keep from thinking about my impending death for a little while, and they matter.

People get anxious on flights and, like me, they read SkyMall. Thankfully, when I’m anxious all I do is shout about how we’re all going to die, but it seems like a lot of people like to buy shit when they’re scared, which makes sense, I guess? You can’t take it with you, so if you’re about to pop your proverbial clogs, you may as well spend some of your hard-earned money. Your kids will just waste it on Star Wars-themed popcorn machines and gyroscope shoe-inserts that keep you from falling down anyway.

On a similar note, there are so many more ways to distract yourself on airplanes these days. At the risk of sounding like Louis C.K., there’s WiFi on planes now! That is insane. I cannot get over that. I’ve been so conditioned to think that using my phone on the plane will kill everyone aboard that I’ve never actually used it, but I understand that it works and it’s there! So I guess if you wanted to buy a suit of armor you could just go to Discountsuitsofarmor.com and save $400 now?

The rebirth of J.C. Penney is more interesting to me, in part because I see a publishing angle, possibly because I am insane. It seems counterintuitive, but there seems to be real value in print—because there are so many distractions online (Jacob Silverman’s forthcoming book Terms of Service has taught me that people spend something like 15 seconds on a page before leaving), retailers are resuscitating some old ideas. I’d like to talk more about this, so I’ll ask a question. In Taylor’s piece, she said she was skeptical; I think it’s a great idea. What do you think?

Mark: Ask me all the J.C. Penney-related questions you want, Alex, but there’s no way you’re going to keep me from talking about SkyMall, a truly phenomenal piece of Americana. I’m very sad about the likely demise of SkyMall, though I can’t say that I’ve ever bought anything off of it. Did you ever read Ron Rosenbaum’s great piece about it? Like you, he says that SkyMall “has something to do with the notion of death—of your time running out.” And of course there’s Bill McKibben’s famous proclamation, from his 2006 Orion essay: “If there is any piece of writing that defines our culture, I submit it’s the SkyMall catalog. To browse its pages is to understand the essential secret of American consumer life: That we’ve officially run out not only of things we need, but even of things we might plausibly desire.” I’ve only ever read that quotation and not the whole essay, because I’m not an Orion subscriber, though I should be. Essays about SkyMall are my kind of essays.

Also–and this is the last thing I’ll say about SkyMall–it’s not at all clear to me that WiFi or smart phones killed the greatest magazine of our times. This Atlantic piece, from 2013, suggests that the real problem with SkyMall was its parent company, Xhibit, which sounds nonsensical and totally fucking stupid. And indeed it was Xhibit that filed for bankruptcy last week. So who knows: maybe a company that produces more than buzzwords will buy SkyMall and allow us more in-flight opportunities to purchase a SnacDaddy® chicken-wing tray.

Now, to answer your question: I agree that the catalog is a great idea. This is wholly anecdotal, of course, but as Tucker Max and I both argue, print has its uses. I think it’s a good way to read Raymond Chandler, while Max thinks it’s a good way to sell sell sell, and in this case, his vision of things may be the more applicable one. To be clear, despite what all of our many readers may think, I’m not an expert on the changing face of retail in the digital age–I’m just a guy who co-writes a series of blog posts called “Two for Tuesdays.” But even though this actually qualifies me as a non-expert on just about every topic, I’ll say that creating mechanisms by which shoppers can spend as much time as possible looking at and examining a retailer’s products strikes me as a can’t-lose strategy. All hail catalogs!

Unlike Taylor, though, I’d draw the line at Abercrombie & Fitch’s A&F Quarterly. Despite its contributions from Slavoj Žižek, that publication deserves to stay dead.

Alex: I read A&F Quarterly for the articles, not for the shirtless pics of Žižek.

I think that J.C. Penney’s decision is probably the kind of decision made by a sinking ship—i.e. nothing we’ve tried has worked so far, so let’s throw whatever we can think of at the wall! That catalog isn’t going to bring back the mall, so it seems like J.C. Penney may have bigger problems to worry about. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think this is a small step in the right direction: it’s an acknowledgment that the internet isn’t going to make everything easier, especially for businesses. You can buy whatever you want online, but it’s still hard to find what you want—and it’s even harder, now that SkyMall won’t be there to help.

People in the book industry talk a lot about “discoverability” but the internet hasn’t done much to help that—people still tend to “discover” books in person, and they definitely don’t “discover” them shopping online. For me, the publishing industry’s “discoverability” problem has always been a bookstore problem—nobody helps people discover books quite like devoted booksellers, and the fewer of those there are, the fewer discoveries will be made. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to push for a Melville House catalog. Maybe a Melville House in-flight magazine though? Mostly I just want Dennis and Valerie to send me to Thailand to cover, um, Thai bookstores? Yes, that’s it. Thai bookstores. Nothing weird. Just Thai bookstores.

Mark: Sorry, Alex, No one’s letting you into Thailand.

Alex: True, but no one is stopping me from posting two hot classic rock tracks. For today’s Twofer Tuesday, here are two burners from Montrose.